How quickly we forget. Events of 20 years ago seem like a distant memory, but 1994 was the year when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, O.J. Simpson was arrested for killing his wife, huge massacres were happening in Rwanda and Sarajevo, and China got its first connection to the Internet.
Bill Clinton was President; the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Forrest Gump; and the world’s population reached 5.6 billion.
To put this year into perspective, this was before the Monica Lewinsky scandal (she was hired by the White House in 1995), before the Oklahoma City bombing (1995), and before the death of Princess Diana (1997).
It was also after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), after the Persian Gulf War (1991), after the Rodney King incident (1991), and after the Branch Davidian catastrophe in Waco, Texas (1993).
But most teenagers weren’t talking about world affairs. Instead, they were far more interested in getting their driver's license; listening to the music of Madonna, New Kids on the Block, Celine Dion, Coolio, or Prince; or going to the latest Jim Carrey movie.
More telling for these teenagers was what they didn’t have yet. They didn’t have the Internet, email, smart phones, search engines, social networking, Sony Playstation, Apple iPods, or downloadable anything. Music, movies, and information came on CDs, cassettes, VHS, in cartridges, or in printed form.
But here’s one crazy detail you may not have considered. Many of the teens of 1994 are now the parents of teenagers in 2014. This is the group tasked with reinventing the rules of childhood in terms of screen time, cellphone curfews, social networking etiquette, and more. But we’re just getting started.
NOTE: Part two can be found here.
In looking at generational changes, it’s important to put everything into context – what things have changed and what has stayed the same.
I’ve chosen to frame this discussion around middle class teenagers in the U.S., an influential, trend-setting segment of American society. Experiences differ greatly depending on economic status, cultural upbringing, community, location, and family structure, so this is not intended to be an all-encompassing look at teenage life, just snapshots of generational differences.
Changing Levels of Awareness
1994 - Heady issues for teens were Kurt Cobain’s suicide or watching a Jerry Springer interview with Lorena Bobbitt who was found not guilty for reasons of insanity for cutting off her husband John’s penis.
They were largely unaware of mass genocides happening in Rwanda and Sarajevo, because worldwide news coverage was still quite limited.
2014 – News has a way of finding you. Important topics have a way of entering conversations on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Skype.
The most influential sources of news for teens are humor-based shows like Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Daily Show, or The Colbert Report.
2034 – Anticipatory computing will make news very niched and nuanced, and focused on topics important to the individual.
Every choice a teen makes online will help define and redefine what information will enter into their own hyper-individualized newsfeeds.
Key influencers 1994
Listening to Music
1994 – Music has a way of defining who we are and what we deem important. This was a year of big transition in the format of music as we began switching from cassettes to CDs. By 1993, annual shipments of CD players had reached 5 million, up 21% from the year before, while cassette player shipments had dropped 7% to approximately 3.4 million.
As a percentage of income, music was expensive and, at most, teens had access to a few thousand songs in their personal libraries. Purchasing music required a trip to Wal-Mart or the local record shop to find the latest hits.
Terrestrial radio broadcasts were a powerful broadcast medium, and all young people knew which stations were hip and cool. Casey Kasem's best Top 40 radio show was wildly popular and helped define the latest trends in music genres and style.
Music tended to be more rigidly segmented into categories like pop, country, hiphop, jazz, and reggae.
2014 – Acquiring music no longer requires going somewhere. Virtually everything is downloadable or streaming. Every young person has millions of songs to choose from, and few want to be defined by a single category or genre.
The download revolution began with Napster, a controversial download-everything-for-free site in 1999. While the courts put a stop to the “free music” business model, the industry had shifted to change mode. Steve Job’s influence on the music industry began in 2001 with the introduction of the iPod and it’s accompanying library of songs on iTunes.
For most young people, purchasing music is far less important than subscribing to a personalized streaming service like Rdio, Spotify, or Apple Radio. With these services, the amount teens spend on music plummets to a fraction of what their parents spent.
2034 – Music players will have the ability to understand our moods and will pre-assess our reaction to music. With this information guiding the playlists, they will only serve up music that we react positively to.
Music will be used less and less to fill the air for a group experience. Rather, it will be channeled to us individually.
With this level of advancement, music will be used as a performance enhancing tool with many studies conducted around which music works best for situations involving heavy focus and concentration, running a marathon, or during sex.
Typical teen geek in 1994
1994 – This was the year of the Pentium processor and IBM clones. Large monitors are 17” CRTs that ate up most of your desk.
IBM ThinkPads, Dell PCs, and Compaq Computers were hot. Ten years after the original Macintosh, Apple introduced the Power Macintosh. After a three-year failed run, Steve Jobs shut down his NeXT Computer business, setting the stage for him to return to Apple in 1997. Amiga, Commodore, and Atari computers were still around but in their waning years.
Laptops were available but rather clunky and crude. The Motorola PowerBook and IBM ThinkPad were early leaders in portability.
CD-ROMS and Iomega Zip Drives made their debut along with the Apple Newton and QuickCam, a spherical eye-shaped webcam that brought pixelated greyscale video capabilities to the PC generation.
Since this was a year before Windows 95, most are running the Windows 3.1 operating system. Data was stored on 3.5 inch disks, the Internet is in its infancy and those who had the technology to connect were dialing in on a 2,600 baud modem. Telephone companies charges long distance fees if you could not find a local number to call into.
For teenagers, computers were still quite expensive, but young geeks had a way of amassing their own hodge-podge equipment that they frequently had to change motherboards on.
2014 – Desktop computers are currently in their waning years, replaced by the likes of iPad, Xooms, Kindles, Chromebooks, Nexus, Galaxy, and MacBooks. But smartphones now handle most of the heavy lifting.
Keyboards are becoming less important as tools like auto-fill and auto-correct make entries less painful. Voice input systems like Siri and Robin are finally gaining broader acceptance. Virtually everyone has had to learn to type with their thumbs.
Nearly all information is stored on cloud-based services like Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive.
For young people, the cost of technology has dropped an order of magnitude and most have smartphones and tablet computers as their constant companions. Being less careful with their equipment, a smartphone with a broken-glass front has become a universal symbol of teen technology.
2034 – The term “computer” itself is destined to become a distant memory, as computer chips will become invisible to users, imbedded in everything from clothing, to cars, and homes.
Displays will be uniquely imbedded in clothing, glasses, and alternatively projectable on virtually every surface.
Gone are the years of two-dimensional displays, and in their place will be interactive holographs that give a multi-dimensional perspective on whatever is being projected. Room-filling displays will be all the rage for company teams and group experiences.
Group dating is common among teens
1994 - America’s appetite for listening to all the lurid details of a sexual scandal had been growing. The scandalous Supreme Court confirmation of Clarence Thomas (1991), with Anita Hill offering riveting details about Thomas’ sexual exploits set the stage for a far more dramatic Monica Lewinsky scandal to follow in 1998.
Being gay was taboo. Porn was largely restricted, available only in printed form (Playboy, Hustler, Penthouse) and on VHS tapes (DVDs came later in 1997).
Fear of venereal disease turned teens into condom-carrying opportunists with most sexual encounters still happening in the back seats of cars.
Unwanted pregnancies were a problem, disdained by families and the community, and it was largely up to the teen to manage the details of her life.
2014 - Sexual scandals are still enough to get an elected official thrown out of office as in the case of Silvio Berlusconi or Anthony Weiner, but they are losing much of their draw as attention-grabbing headlines.
With the pervasiveness of the Internet, every teenager has discovered pornography and much of the mystery is now gone. To normal test-their-limits teens, online videos have become an instruction manual, of sorts, for experimentation. Sexting is now commonplace and services like Snapchat, where the image goes away after a few seconds, is a safer way to be momentarily provocative.
Being gay is not only accepted, but shown as normal on virtually every TV, book, or movie making the charts.
The hookup culture has made sex nearly as casual as kissing. Unwanted pregnancies are more likely to result in a child that is raised by parents, grandparents, and other family members.
2034 – Salacious sex stories of the past will be viewed as boring news in the future. Video tabloids still try to use them to grab attention, but each year they seem to become less effective.
For teens, the Penthouse under the mattress or online porn has been replaced with a full sensory virtual experience. Their first sexual encounter is with the cyber-twin of a consensual partner or cyber-prostitute that costs money.
For teens, sex of this nature will come early and often, and most will be anxiously awaiting the next release of the new and improved super-enhanced experience.
Being gay is yesterday’s news and largely an accepted lifestyle choice.
With fewer and fewer children being born, teen pregnancies and having babies is now a status symbol among young women. Gone are the rigors of child rearing as family members and institutionalized childcare pool together to give them back much of their pre-pregnancy freedom so they can return to an active youth lifestyle.
1994 – TVs were large bulky appliances that take up a good portion of the living room. Virtually all of them were connected to cable television and a VCR. Bookshelves had as many VHS tapes of popular movies as they did books.
Watching normal broadcast TV is a syncopated experience with long and frequent ad blocks giving people time to “do things” during the commercial breaks. Parents who wanted their teens to do something typically received an, “I’ll do it during the commercial,” reply.
Even though VCRs allowed people to record a show for later viewing, few actually knew how to run their VCR, many of which still had a “flashing 12:00” that was later covered with duct tape or cardboard.
As a result, the schedule of TV shows drove the schedule for the entire household, with many planning activities around the times of their favorite shows.
Most hated to be in the room when a young guy had the remote control. Constantly flicking through channels to find something better, he’d typically settle on watching the second half of something he’d seen before.
Movies were typically remembered by the 2nd half because few have ever seen the opening.
For teens, who all have their own smaller screen TVs in their room, the television also served as a game console. The hot new video games in 1994 were World of Warcraft and Myst.
The new fall lineup was always cause for excitement, as NBC, ABC, and CBS each dedicate what seems like a billion hours of ad time hyping each of their new fall shows.
Renting movies was also a popular option, causing many to make frequent trips to the local Blockbuster store to check out the latest releases. Late fees were common practice, and most renters learned quickly to both “rewind and return” promptly to avoid police-like fines and penalties.
2014 – Large cathode ray tubes of the past have morphed into today’s high definition flat panel displays. Screen sizes have mushroomed from 32” (a huge TV in 1994) to often 60” or larger.
Cable television providers went from offering dozens of channels to hundreds of channels, along with a DVR, and Internet connection, and a telephone landline that no one cares about.
Many TVs also get connected to either an Apple TV or Roku box for on-demand viewing of any show at any time. People who don’t mind spending the money can avoid commercials altogether.
The TV watching experience first involves finding the coffee or end table with 8-10 remote controls on it, finding the one that turns the TV on, followed by finding the surround sound remote to fire up the audio equipment, followed by finding either the Cable, Apple TV, or Roku remote, followed by finding the remote for your electric recliner.
The remotes are often mixed in with game controllers, an iPod, light dimmers, a cellphone or two, old reading glasses, and at least one remote that no one remembers what its good for.
Teenagers often have their own gadget caves with computers, TVs, game consoles, audio players, smartphone, and at least 37 chargers and cords connected to a single extension cord.
Teens will often try to do their homework with a TV on, while writing entries on Facebook, sending a Snapchat or two, and talking on the phone. As a form of limit-testing most are constantly testing the geek capacity for doing everything simultaneously.
2034 – Most houses are now designed around video surfaces with one room designated as the primary viewing center. Gone are TVs as an appliance and in their place are either projection walls or digital wallpaper.
Most video watching is now in life-like holographic 3D that doesn’t require any special glasses. However, most will choose to wear some form of heads-up display to enhance the experience.
Teenagers will be notorious for attempting to watch 2-3 shows or movies simultaneously while carrying on a quirky dialog with their friends.
Walking down the street, teens switch to music/game mode where the world as they see it is part of the game itself. Some games send players on eclectic treasure hunts, often getting them to stop at their favorite retailer to try a free sample and learn about the latest in-store special. Others will be less commercialized and more social-based, giving kids a reason to connect - “my game told me I should meet you.”
Many houses will be equipped with turn-on windows to either view the surrounding neighborhood or their favorite view of the ocean. Others will be designed around turn-on sky projectors shine the weather outside on the ceiling.
A dystopian view of teen life in the future
Final Thoughts – Part One
One of the major difference with teens over the past 20 years has been the technology. We've gone from big clunky expensive devices to things that most young people own and interact with all the time today.
With this introduction, I was hoping to set the stage for a more in-depth look into the personal side of teen life – past, present, and future.
Being a teenager has never been easy, but how we develop during these formative years is critically important to everyone’s future.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on what's missing and what still needs to be included. This is a hugely important topic with lots of facets, so please feel free to weigh in.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything